Jekta: Be water, my friend

Deep Dive

When 71% of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, why would you not use it as a runway?

This is what George Alafinov, CEO of Jekta believes. The Swiss start-up is developing an all-electric, 19-seat flying boat it calls the PHA-ZE 100, “to open a new era of possibilities for ecological and affordable transportation”. And Alafinov means everywhere, from Oceanic islands to Scandinavian fjords.

When Bruce Lee said, “Be water, my friend”, he meant one should be flexible and willing to adapt to any given situation or environment. In terms of future mobility, this is exactly what Jekta is doing – being water on the water. 

For a sustainable product to be successful, it has to provide direct economic benefit to users – in this case operators, according to Alafinov. “If a sustainable product is to have a comparative advantage over its conventional counterpart, it must bring economic benefit to operators. If it does, then operators will naturally choose it over a conventional option,” he says. “We know the main expenses of any operator are direct running costs – maintenance, human resources, fuel and oil.” 

Alafinov believes there are only two viable options for electric flight using today’s technology – eVTOLs and seaplanes. “Only in these short-range missions can we can truly speak about sustainability being of direct benefit to operators – where operators actually gain from adopting the technology,” he explains. 

Then when it comes to the seaplane market there is an extra level of cost dictated by the operating limits of the aircraft. The vast majority of amphibious aircraft are 25-plus years old – de Havilland Beavers and Twin Otters for example. There are Kodiaks, which are newer, but still are built using the same principles as their older counterparts. These aircraft are converted to land on sea which increases drag, weight and therefore cost. Additionally, these metal props require almost daily cleaning to mitigate salt corrosion.

“This is where we come in,” says Alafinov. “The electrification of the seaplane market using our PHA-ZE 100 brings direct economic benefit to operators. We use a composite material that doesn’t rust, electric engines are very simple – it is just a propellor, governor and a control box – reducing maintenance further and as a flying boat it has comparably much increased operating limits compared to float aircraft.”

Being a flying boat rather than an aircraft converted to land on water is key to Jekta’s plans. Reduced drag and weight mean the operating limits are significantly increased. Whilst competitors are grounded – or moored in this case – Jekta’s aircraft will be able to operate at a wave height of 1.2m (the first degree of storm).

Speaking of storms, elements-caused wear and tear to the hull is an occupational hazard for seaplane operators. Metal aircraft require regular cleaning and part replacements, PHA-ZE 100’s composite hull significantly reduces that workload. Like fibreglass used in yacht hulls and ultra-light aircraft, the composite structure is reinforced at structural weak points with kevlar and carbon fibre. The flaps are to be constructed from a German-developed material known as “Oratex”, which is a light and strong fabric that provides sufficient rigidity whilst being easy to use and replace. It is also cheap, saving operators more money in the long run.

Alafinov is future proofing too. With expected changes to FAA Part 23 regulations, allowing one pilot to operate a commercial mission, the PHA-ZE 100 is being developed for single and multi-pilot operations. “We want to provide direct economic benefit to customers because our aircraft is sustainable, not in spite of it,” he says. The firm has also added a WC into the design of the aircraft. “People ask why? We’re only flying 50-minute journeys,” Alafinov says. “This is true. At the beginning of the lifetime of this product these are the missions we will be flying. But 20 years from now when you are able to fly three or four hours, you will want a bathroom.”

Current high operating costs mean high ticket prices, the average cost per hour for seaplane tickets today sits between $150-$200. According to Alafinov, ticket prices on routes operated by PHA-ZE 100 are likely to be less than half the costs— and that is with operators making a profit. Compared with similar 19-seat aircraft the PHA-ZE 100 comes out significantly cheaper on every variable. The OEM is aiming to reduce the per passenger per hour, fuel costs by nearly 80%.

Operating routes in remote and underserved locations sounds great. But, as anyone who drives an electric vehicle knows, straying too far from a charge point can leave you stranded. So how does Jekta plan to overcome power supply issues when the main grid doesn’t suffice? The company has a two-pronged approach similar to that proposed by Australian charging infrastructure OEM, Electro.Aero. Aircraft will be fast-charged, in about 30 minutes, from high-capacity charging blocks containing multiple battery packs, which will be positioned either in port or on designated charging vessels. Overnight, when services are not operating, blocks will recharge from the main grid and, in the day, via solar panels provided by Jekta upon sale of the PHA-ZE 100.

“This is not something new,” says Alafinov. “For example, in Switzerland it is common for people to use solar panels on their houses, the energy then goes to a capacitor on the days when you are using less. When you then need that energy, the house can take it from the capacitor.”

Jekta has announced a number of strategic partnerships to develop the PHA-ZE 100. Italian design firm, MBVision will assist with the R&D required to get the aircraft to market. Once there, the PHA-ZE is to be produced at a manufacturing facility at the Payerne-based airport, Swiss Aeropole.

Bruce Lee was not known for his analysis of future modes of seaplane transport. But reading between the lines of his saying: “Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own,” he would probably approve of Jekta’s approach to the flying boat sector.

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